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Faculty of Letters and Human Sciences

Department of English language and literature

IBN ZOHR University

CSMP 2010

Semester 1





Issues in the Postcolonial Theory

Academic year: 2010/2011

There is no doubt that Gayatri Spivak is one of the most remarkable and outstanding theorists in the postcolonial theory. Along with Said and Bhabha, she is a prominent pillar of the so-called the postcolonial trilogy. Additionally, Spivak is one of the foremost feminist critics who have attained an international fame and eminence. Spivaks writing and field of interest are diverse, including her feminist perspective on deconstruction, her critique of imperialism and colonial discourse, her engagement with the Marxist critique of capital and the international division of labor, and her critique of race in relation to nationality, ethnicity, and immigrant groups (Landry et al 1996: 3). The discussion of subalternity is overriding and central to Spivak as a postcolonial critic who harshly critiques the imperial, colonial, and even postcolonial discourse and practices. In this humble essay, I shall study the Spivakian notion of subalternity, endeavoring to offer an insightful analysis of Spivaks conception of the subaltern. To do so, I shall draw most of my conclusions on such inaccessible conception, in my view at least, from her influential and significant essay Can the Subaltern Speak? As an amateur reader who is not trained enough in the tradition of continental philosophy, I confess that I faced many difficulties when reading Spivak as she has skillfully challenged the high ground of established philosophical discourse. In fact, she has succeeded in such a challenge with her difficult theoretical language and on grounds exclusively recognizable to philosophers. However, I have set out deliberately to study this theorist so that I might get more insights into the postcolonial theory through one of its pioneers notwithstanding the fact that my conclusions and judgments may be faulted.

First of all, I would like to start with a general definition of the term subaltern and its etymology. Subaltern is a concept first used and coined by the Italian Marxist activist Antonio Gramsci to refer to those groups who are subjects to the hegemony of the dominant classes (Ashcroft et al 1998: 215). For Gramsci, the term designates non-elite or subordinated social groups. Gramsci was interested in the subaltern classes historiography as he claimed that the history of the subaltern is as complex as that of the ruling classes. The realization of such history results in a fragmented and episodic history since the subaltern dont have the means whereby they might control their own representation and because they have less access to cultural and social institutions (Ibid: 216). The term has been subsequently adapted to 9

postcolonial studies from the work of Guhas group of Subaltern Studies, who aimed at launching a systematic and fruitful discussion of subaltern themes. For Guha and his followers, the term subaltern refers to any sort of subordination whether it is expressed in terms of age, gender, caste, class, etc. Guhas groups aim was to point to the imbalance between the elites and their culture on one hand and the subaltern in South Asian historiography in academic work on the other hand; the goal of the group germinates from the belief that the historiography of Indian nationalism has been long dominated by eliticism (Ibid: 217). When Gayatri Spivak first critiques the conclusions of the Subaltern Group in her monumental article Can the Subaltern speak? the notion of the subaltern has become a central and overriding issue in postcolonial studies. Her criticism is directed to Guhas fundamentally essentialist premise; since for her, no way for determining who or what might constitute the subaltern group can escape such essentialism. I shall return back to this very point later in my essay as my main concern now is to trace the way Spivak has built her argument to come to such conclusions. In her influential article Can the Subaltern speak? Spivak problematizes the production and retrieval of subaltern speech in the light of its dependence on controlling and dominant discursive practices, which define the modalities of expression of the subaltern subjects and construct the position from which they speak or are heard. In fact, the main aim of Spivak here is to learn to speak to the historically silenced subjects of the non-elite rather than to listen to or speak for such muted subjects. In other words, Spivak does not endeavor to problematize the authority of colonial discourse; rather she is interested in the ways whereby imperialism has constructed narratives of history, gender, geography. According to her, the subalterns actions are not only inscribed and read in terms of dominant codes of colonial imperialism and the nationalistic elitist; this leads her to conclude, provocatively, that the subaltern cannot speak. Before coming to such provocative conclusion, Spivak starts with a critique of Foucault and Deleuze, through which she warns against the dangers of re-inscribing imperial assumptions of colonial studies. Her purpose is to undo the opposition between these two influential French theorists in order to trace the track of ideology (Spivak 1988a: 68). According to Spivak, both Foucault and Deleuze failed to provide and consider a suitable concept of ideology; she accuses them of aligning themselves with bourgeois sociologists who fill the place of ideology with a continuistic unconscious culture (Ibid: 68). As a post9

structuralist, Foucault fails to trace the workings of ideology notwithstanding the fact that he stresses the idea that there is a crucial and overriding role of ideology in the reproduction of social relations of production. For Spivak, additionally, Deleuze follows the same way by arguing that there is no representation; there is nothing but action--- action of theory and action of practice which relate to each other as relays and form networks (cited in Spivak 1988a: 70). If I understand Spivak well, therefore, for both Foucault and Deleuze there is no representation, no signifier, so there is no sign-structure operating experience; one famous example of the aforementioned denial of representation is the post-structuralist claim that language is a nonrepresentational system. Spivak harshly criticizes this claim by arguing that:
One responsibility of the critic might be to read and write so that the impossibility of such interested individualistic refusals of the institutional privilege of power bestowed on the subject is taken seriously. The refusal of the sign system blocked the way to a developed theory of ideology (Ibid: 75).

Despite the fact that Spivak will rely heavily on Foucault in her latter discussion of epistemic violence and the worlding of the world and notwithstanding the fact that he actually tried to decentre human subjects, Foucault still believes that the oppressed (the subaltern) can speak for themselves, which Spivak does not approve. Consequently, she accused him in her article Can the Subaltern speak? of not having any conception of the repressive power of colonialism (Loomba 1998: 233). What I have understood from this critique of both Foucault and Deleuze is that post-structuralism (and probably even post-colonialism that will be clear later) is strategically and fundamentally essential. Therefore, for Spivak post-structuralism as essentialism is a trap since it is a globalizing, ahistorical approach which pretends to make use of categories rooted in the natural and the universal (Williams and Childs 1997: 159). I dont want to dwell here on the way in which Spivak favors the Althusserian Marxist conception of ideology over the Foucauldian. Spivak moves on to the discussion of the epistemic violence of the codification of Hindu law so that she could show how the narrative of history as imperialism is considered as the best and valid version of history. In fact, a narrative or explanation of reality was established as a normative one (Spivak 1988a: 76). Therefore, Spivak wonders whether the subaltern can speak in a world with new realities of division of labor and in a world in which epistemic violence of imperialist law and education exist. To find a way out from this labyrinth, she starts with the 9

critique of both Gramscis and Guha treatment of subalternity ; in this critique she focuses mainly on Guhas analysis of the social structure of postcolonial societies by means of what he called dynamic stratification grid:
Elite 1- Dominant foreign groups. 2- Indigenous groups on the all-India level. 3- . Dominant indigenous groups at the regional and local levels. 4- The terms people and subaltern classes [are] used as synonymous throughout [Guhas definition]. The social groups and elements included in this category represent the demographic difference between the total Indian population and all those whom we have described as the elite (cited in Spivak 1988a: 79).

In the grid given by Guhas group, the subaltern refers to under-represented group of people, their hidden histories, and even to the historiographies who study them, which Spivak critiques harshly. Spivak leaves Guhas problematic of the floating buffer zone of the regional subalternelite and moves on to problematize the ideal itself, the people, the subaltern. The work of Guhas group for Spivak contains an element of strategic essentialism in the attempted recuperation of a subaltern consciousnesssomething which could only be a theoretical fiction (Williams and Childs 1997: 161). This is simply because she believes that they read and look for the subaltern voice in the colonial texts which minimize the subaltern activity. The subaltern group tried to rewrite the history of colonial India from below, from the view point of peasants. However, this seems to be a paradoxical project as the documentary evidence is so one-sided that no scientific, positivist account of subaltern insurgency is possible. In fact, there are no subaltern memoirs, diaries, or official histories (Laundry and Maclean 1996: 9). According to Spivak, this is an essentializing language; Guhas project actually aimed at rewriting the development of the consciousness of the Indian nation (its history), instead of touching the consciousness of people. She stresses: I have argued, in the Foucault-Deleuze conversation, a post-

representationalist vocabulary hides an essentialist agenda. In subaltern studies, because of the violence of imperialist, epistemic, social, and disciplinary inscription, a project understood in essentialist terms must traffic in a radical textual practices of difference (Spivak 1988a: 80)

Unlike Guha, therefore, Spivak does not endeavor to write another history of the subaltern, but rather unearths the assumptions and workings of that representation: the way the subaltern is represented in colonial and elitist historiography. Spivak comes subsequently to her provocative conclusion that the subaltern consciousness/voice could not be retrieved, and hence any postcolonial analysis ought to show this impossibility by locating the positions from which the subaltern speaks, but cannot be heard or read. Robert Young, who is one of Spivaks interpreters, has argued: Rather than speak for a lost consciousness that cannot be recovered, a paternalistic activity at best, the critic can point to the place of womans [as an instance of the subaltern] disappearance in an aporia, a blind spot where understanding and knowledge are blocked (Young 1990: 64). This leads me to the fact that Spivak addresses the problem of representation and representability in her article. Therefore, she believes that the subaltern should not be represented (and this is probably a reaction against the vanguardist position of the Leninist ideological intellectual); nor does s/he have the ability to represent themselves. Put simply, they cannot speak; for the subaltern is only produced by subject-effect, the inscription found in colonial historiography: the peasant is marked as irretrievable consciousness. There is no subaltern voice that can be retrieved or made to speak (Williams and Childs 1997: 162). Another important idea in Spivaks article is the functions she assigns to the postcolonial critic and intellectual. The central role that critics should play is to resist the desire to retrieve the voices silenced by imperialism since they are irretrievable and also because such a move would subscribe once more to the humanism notion of the voice as the free expression of an authentic individuality (Ibid: 162). This very idea leads her to give as an example of the silenced subaltern the rite of widow-sacrifice on a husband funeral pyre (sati), and here she again brings the feminist and postcolonial criticism together. For Spivak, the sati is silenced by both the British and the nationalistic indigenous colonial elite. For instance, the fact that the British banned this practice leads to the conclusion that white men are saving brown woman from brown man, which is an imperial practice par excellence since it inscribes and imposes certain sort of history on the colonized. Likewise, the fact that the nationalistic romanticization of the purity, love, and strength of these self-sacrificing women reveals clearly the patriarchal nationalistic position that the women want to die. Indeed, one should ask: where is the subaltern voice between these two different (but similar in essence) inscriptions of history? 9

Spivak concludes that there is no possible alternative history to be written from the subaltern position. Therefore, postcolonial critics must learn not to seek the subaltern voice, but to point to the silence (Ibid: 164-5). The figure of sati here, for instance, disappears between what is constructed to her by others; we are given two versions of the satis free-will and the acts meaning. Indeed, this gendered subaltern is repeatedly re-written, but absent between the discourse of imperialism and patriarchal nationalism. It might be argued that the fact that Spivak asserts that the subaltern cannot speak is an expression of terminal epistemological and political pessimism. Saying that she has been misunderstood, however, Spivak argues that the term subaltern is to be used for everything that is different from organized resistance; it is a group defined by its difference from the elite. Building on Guhas ideas and findings, she justifies this usage:
He is making an analysis of how a colonial society is structured, and what space can be spoken of as subaltern space. There is space in post-imperial arenas which displaced from empire-nation exchange. Where one sees emancipated bourgeoisie, organized labor, organized left movements, urban radicalism, all of this constituted with the empire-nation exchange, reversing it in many different kinds of ways. But in post-imperialist societies there is a vast arena which is not necessarily accessible to that kind of exchange. It is that space that one calls subaltern. The romantic notion that the subaltern can speak is totally undermined by the fact that the real effort to pull them into national agency with the sanctions that are already there (Spivak 1990: 90).

It seems from this quotation that Spivak has homogenized and pushed the subaltern out of the realm of political exchange, beyond national agency (Coronil 2000: 43). In fact, her aim is to resist the impulse to solve the problem of political subjectivity by romanticizing the subaltern (ibid: 42). In my opinion, if I read Spivak well, I take her to mean that there should be a reconstitution of the subaltern not only as a unified subject who cannot speak, but as a silenced object located outside agency. Coronil seems to share the same view when he says that subalternity defines not the being of a subject, but a subjected state of being (Ibid: 44). Moreover, Spivaks purpose is the concept of an unproblematically constructed subaltern identity, rather than the subaltern ability to give voice to political concerns. That is, there is no act of resistance that occurs on the subaltern subjects behalf entirely separate from the dominant discourse that provides the conceptual categories with which the subalterns voice speaks; for Spivak the postcolonial discourse is a stance of such speaking.


To sum up, what I do consider very meaningful in Spivaks article and considerably relevant to our post-modern world and condition is her examination of the function of the postcolonial intellectual. First, Spivak challenges the widespread thesis that the intellectual (or postcolonial historian) can recover the voice and consciousness of the subaltern. In my view, this must not be understood as a terminal epistemological pessimism or as an apocalyptic vision of human history as the fact that the subaltern cannot speak does not necessarily mean that history does come to an end and that the slave-master struggle for recognition has come to its abolition; rather I do understand it as a kind of historical despair which allows us, as subaltern, to express our worries (even in silence) and to re-organize our historical realities since despair, as I understand it, is the first step towards resistance. As for the function of the intellectual, notwithstanding the fact that there is a danger that the true image of the intellectual may gradually vanish and that there is a the tendency of such an image to increasingly become like a profession, I find myself identified with Saids view as it gives me more insights into the function and the value of the intellectual. For Said, unlike Spivak, there has been no major revolution in modern history without intellectuals; conversely there has been no major counterrevolutionary movement without intellectuals. Intellectuals have been the fathers and mothers of movements, and of course sons and daughters, even nephews and nieces (Said 1996: 11). In fact, Said stresses explicitly the representative function of the intellectuals in the sense that they are the voice of the voiceless; likewise, Spivak herself, in spite of her seemingly justified pessimism, appreciates the desire of the postcolonial intellectuals to uncover t(he oppression and to provide the standpoint of the oppressed. Loomba summarizes this juxtaposition of pessimism and optimism: She [Spivak] therefore suggests that such intellectuals adapt the Gramscian maxim pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the willby combining a philosophical skepticism about recovering any subaltern agency with a political commitment to making visible the position of the marginalized (Loomba 1998: 234). I think that it is very difficult to get out of Spivaks labyrinth once one gets inside. This is simply because this labyrinth is in a sense ours; being lost as postcolonial oppressed subjects in a postcolonial condition.

Works Cited

Ashcroft et al. Key Concept in Postcolonial Studies. London: Routledge, 1998. Coronil, Fernando. Listening to the Subaltern: Postcolonial studies and the Poetics on Neocolonial States, in Postcolonial theory and criticism, ed. Laura Christman and Benita Parry, New York: D.S. Brewer, Cambridge, 2000, 3756. Loomba, Ania. Colonialism, Postcolonialism. London: Routledge, 1998. Laundry. D and Maclean. G. The Spivak Reader,ed. New York: Routledge, 1996. Said, Edward. Representations of the Intellectuals. New York: Vintage Books, 1996. Spivak, Gayatri, 1988a. Can the Subaltern Speak?, in Colonial Discourse and Postcolonial theory: A Reader, ed. Patrick Williams and Laura Christman, New York: Colombia University Press, 1994, 66109. ---------, 1988b. Subaltern Studies: Deconstructing Historiography, in The Spivak reader, ed. Donna Landry and Gerald Maclean, New York: Routledge, 1996. 203236. ---------, 1990. Gayatri Spivak on the Politics of the Subaltern (in an interview with Howard Winant), Socialist Review 3, 8197. Williams. P and Childs. P. An Introduction to Postcolonial Theory. London: Prentice Hall Europe, 1997. Young, Robert. White Mythologies: Writing History and the West. New York: Routledge, 1990.